Today, we celebrate Nelson Mandela International Day, which falls every year on the former president's birthday of July 18. But we have to admit that this time around is different. This year, worldwide festivities are veiled by a notable tinge of sadness — it's the first time we celebrate the annual holiday since his death. Last December, we were saddened to hear about the passing of Nelson Mandela. After struggling for years with his worsening health, he died at the age of 95.
He was — in short — an icon. He was a man who practiced and preached the power of love. In fact, he believed in love SO much that he exchanged vows with three different women over his lifetime. With three wives, six children, 17 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren, Mandela left behind a big family. As a political activist, he was not above controversy and what we've come to realize is that his love life often paid the price.
Evelyn Mase (1944 — 1958)
Mandela married his first wife, Evelyn Mase in 1944, the same year he co-founded the African National Congress Youth League.
She confessed to longtime friend Fatima Meer that "I think I loved him the first time I saw him." Working as a nurse, she supported him as he completed his law studies. Their first years together as newlyweds sound like typical marital bliss — raising their three little babies and cooking meals together. But Evelyn soon became resentful of her husband's increasingly noticeable absences.
Anthony Sampson, a close friend of Mandela and his official biographer, claims that he was a charismatic "ladies man" and even flaunted his female "political colleagues" in front of Evelyn. "There was another woman and this one started coming home, walking into our bedroom, following him into the bathroom," Evelyn claimed. "I declared that I would not allow it." Rumor has it that Mandela even fathered an illegitimate son by his secretary, Ruth Mompati, around this time. It was enough to Evelyn. They finally divorced in 1958 and she returned to the Transkei where she ran a shop. In a later interview, she remarked bitterly, "How can a man who has committed adultery and left his wife and children be Christ? The whole world worships Nelson too much. He is only a man."
Despite their strife, when she died, Mandela attended the funeral in Johannesburg alongside his second and third wives.
Winnie Madikizela (1958 — 1996)
Then there was, of course, Winnie. Out of his three marriages and lesser known relationships, his three-decade long relationship with Winnie Madikizela is probably remembered best. When they met at a bus stop, Nelson described it as love at first sight. They were soon married in June 1958, just a year after he divorced Evelyn.
But the honeymoon phase was short and sweet. Soon after saying "I do", she was arrested for an incendiary speech, prompting Mandela to remark proudly, "I think I married trouble." It was then that Mandela was sent to prison. Over the next 27 years, from his jail cell on Robben Island, he penned loving letters to Winnie. In his book, Long Walk To Freedom, he wrote: "My dearest Winnie, your beautiful photo still stands about two feet above my left shoulder as I write this note. I dust it carefully every morning, for to do so gives me the pleasant feeling that I'm caressing you as in the old days. I even touch your nose with mine to recapture the electric current that used to flush through my blood whenever I did so."
In the coming years, Winnie would be in and out of jail herself. And despite the love letters and prison visits, it was political strife and alleged affairs on Winnie's part that eventually drove a wedge between the couple. They divorced in 1996.
Graca Machel (1998 — )
Less than two years after divorcing Winnie, Mandela was dating his soon-to-be third and last wife, Graca Machel.
When her husband tragically died in an air crash, leaving her widowed, Mandela wrote to Graca from prison. She was still in mourning when they met in person in 1990, but two years later, Mandela became the godfather of her stepchildren. Mandela was in love again, gushing to reporters, "Late in life, I am blooming like a flower because of the love and support she has given me." On July 18, 1998 — his 80th birthday — Graca broke her vow that she would not marry another president.
She famously got along well with ex-wife Winnie. "I call her little sister and she calls me big sister, we share everything," Winnie said in an interview. "When she talks to me, she talks about 'our husband'." They were both by his side in his final days.
For Mandela, you might consider Amina Cachalia as "the one who got away" in his lifetime of loves.
Amina, a longtime Indian anti-apartheid and women's rights activist, became close friends with Mandela over the years. When her husband, ANC activist Yusuf Cachalia, died in 1995, he professed his love for her. In a passage from her biography, When Hope and History Rhyme, she describes intimate visits from the former president of South Africa:
"On one of these visits I must have been looking rather flustered as I bustled about doing my chores. [Mandela] sat me down on the two-seater couch in the living room and kissed me passionately. Running his fingers through my hair he said: 'Do you know that you are an exceptionally beautiful, vivacious and enticing young lady?' I hollered at him. He looked very worried and wanted to know what was so wrong with what he had said. I replied gently: 'I'm not a young lady; I am a middle-aged woman.'"
Amina died earlier this year at the age of 83. Both of her children, Ghaleb and Coco, confirmed the story.